A world-friendly cup of coffee

La Colombe's brew comes chock full of environmental ethics

12/14/2011 10:00 PM

Medill News Service

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Customer Miguel Cervantes says La Colombe Torrefaction’s social and environ-mental ethics are ‘a big component’ of his choice to go there.

My first interaction with Todd Carmichael was an email from Africa. After writing to inquire about his coffee company, La Colombe Torrefaction, his reply came surprising quickly given his circumstances.

Carmichael had traveled 7,500 miles to adopt his fourth child in Ethiopia when visa issues required him to move into a one-room shack for almost a month to wait out the paperwork.

Under conditions where many Westerners might verge on a breakdown, Carmichael decided to take care of some business.

He had already faced some serious challenges in his 48 years — earning the world record for the fastest unsupported trek to the South Pole was just one of his superhuman feats. Currently, however, his main professional pursuit is coffee.

Thus his debacle in the java-rich country of Ethiopia became an opportunity.

With his new 8-month-old son Bek, Carmichael met with coffee farmers, coop representatives and ministry of agriculture and forest officials.

“We’ve decided to support a wild coffee/forestry program in Jimma,” Carmichael wrote. The coffee will be wild, direct-trade coffee grown in the endangered forests and Carmichael and Iberti have committed to buying it all. “The result is not only an incredible and rare coffee, but one that sustains a community and protects a forest. Beautiful stuff — and my son’s first sourcing!”

Carmichael is the co-founder of coffee importer, roaster and distributor La Colombe Torrefaction. Carmichael and his partner, Jean Philippe Iberti, opened their first coffee shop in Philadelphia in 1994. In June, their sixth store opened at 955 W. Randolph St. in the West Loop. It’s run by long-time employee Gregory Smith, who has worked with Iberti and Carmichael since the company was founded.

Although La Colombe Torrefaction was “really just a cafe” for the first couple of years, Carmichael’s first trip to Ethiopia in 1996 or 1997 inspired him to make some changes, Iberti said.

Today, the company sets a high bar for other coffee shops. Carmichael and Iberti employ direct trade methods to ensure maximum profitability for their environmentally-certified producers.

La Colombe requires all of their coffee growers to have two third-party certifications, such as Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade USA, Smithsonian Bird Friendly, or USDA organic.

The double certification requirement ensures a quality standard, said Katie Barrow, senior manager of communications for Fair Trade USA.

“It ensures that you have a product that all of your conscious consumers are looking for,” she said. “It covers the range.”

Of course, Carmichael and Iberti recognize that not all of their producers in Haiti, Ethiopia and other developing countries can afford the certifications. So, they’ve come up with a different plan.

“If you are a grower, I love your coffee and we create a relationship, I will get the certifications for you,” Carmichael said.

La Colombe does this through their LCT Farm Assist Program, which offers “grants, administrative assistance, on the ground know-how, and new avenues to the U.S. market,” according to their website.

They also run Project Afrique to bring food, housing, education and healthcare to Ethiopian orphans and are trying to save Haiti by helping local growers develop their coffee markets in the U.S.

The decision to incorporate social and environmental practices was a natural choice for the company, Iberti said.

“We’re such a bridge between the third world and our lives in the US,” he said. “Let’s be honest: We deal with some of the most privileged people in the world — people that put gold leaves on their desserts. At the same time, we deal with people where getting access to clean water is what their life is about.”

La Colombe’s commitment to “pushing the envelope” in environmental and social ethics makes the company unique, said Alex Morgan, the business development manager for the sustainable agriculture division of the Rainforest Alliance.

“There are a number of coffee companies that take either quality or sustainability seriously, but they don’t necessarily combine the two of them,” he said. “That approach of having quality of coffee, having transparency through the supply change and having a third party certification is unusual.”

The combination of high-quality coffee and a commitment to good environmental and social practices has won over Chicago-area chefs such as John des Rosiers, executive chef at Inovasi, who was the first to bring La Colombe Torrefaction’s coffee into the Chicago market. Des Rosiers called Carmichael and Iberti the “perfect combination” of business owners that do a great job and are great people.

Restauranteurs such as Phillip Walters have also picked up the product.

The first time Walters tried La Colombe Torrefaction’s product, he said he was not only “blown away” by the coffee, but loved that the company’s mission was parallel to his own restaurant, The Bristol at 2152 N. Damen Ave.

“It followed the same mindset of farm to table,” he said.

Walters, who makes sure that a chalk-board list of the restaurant’s local farms hangs at the front of The Bristol, said he appreciates the close relationship that Iberti and Carmichael foster with their producers through site-visits. Iberti and Carmichael routinely travel the world to meet with their coffee farmers.

La Colombe’s good coffee and ethics have also been noted by visitors to the homey-modern cafe on Randolph, where baristas stick to traditional black coffee and espresso drinks.

Kevin Longstreth, hotel manager of the Ritz Carleton Chicago, sat at the coffee bar on a chilly afternoon last week chatting with two baristas, Adam “Chip” Smith and Evan Devries. While Longstreth said the quality of brew is what first drew him in, the company’s dedication to environmental and social responsibility has earned his commitment.

“Why not choose a product that makes more environmental sense when presented with the option?” he asked. Longstreth first learned about the company’s ethics when he asked about the environmental certifications circled on a chalk board below the daily roast.

Miguel Cervantes, a design research consultant in Chicago, also noted that La Colombe’s socially and environmentally responsible practices earned his loyalty.

“The fact that they do that makes for a better experience overall,” he said. “You feel better paying two or three bucks for coffee.”

The practices have not only inspired customers, but also continue to inspire Carmichael and Iberti. The ability to both serve a quality product and support good environmental and social practices around the world is what keeps them going, Carmichael said.

“It’s was gets me up in the morning and drives me for more and more,” he said. “It is what also guarantees I’ll be doing this until I’m wheeled out of my production plant in a wheel chair at 80 years old.”

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